Up. Dir. Peter Docter. Disney Pixar. 2009.

Pixar’s 2009 film Up tells the astonishing tale of Carl, a 78 year old who wishes to fulfil his and his late wife’s dream of reaching Paradise Falls in South America. From meeting as kids, Ellie and Carl dream of being adventurers, and share a passion for the explorer C.F. Muntz and his ‘Spirit of Adventure’. Once Ellie dies, Carl realises that they never made that dream trip to Paradise Falls. He therefore decides to tie thousands of balloons to the house he built with Ellie and sets off on a fantastical journey with a young stowaway named Russell. The two seem an unlikely pair in this bizarre landscape where they encounter Dug, a dog who can talk via a special collar which interprets his thoughts, and Kevin, a rare tall bird that Muntz has been trying to capture for decades.

Pixar films sit firmly in the family film genre and are defined by the sub genre of animation. Although not a genre itself, more a ‘mode of film-making’ [1], CGI animation has vast appeal for both children and adults. Particularly in Pixar films, this crossover is usually identified through humour and emotional relationships. In Up, the relationship between Carl and Ellie, their troubles having children and her death are certainly aspects that many adults can relate to and children can simply understand. Pixar’s humour often works on two levels, usually creating a parody by exploiting the cultural knowledge of the adult viewer. For example, when the dogs are playing poker in Muntz’s zeppelin it is not only a comic image for a young audience but a reference to C. M. Coolidge’s painting ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ which many older viewers will recognise.

Many of the company’s previous films have focused on animals or non-human characters, such as A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo. Although Up features animals, its primary focus is Carl and Russell. The animals they stumble upon, especially the dogs, have to be something that they and the audience can connect to and believe in. The dogs in Up have the ability to speak but only through their specially designed collars. They do not literally lip sync dialogue which makes it not only more believable in the human world presented to us, but extremely exciting for an audience and Russell as he proclaims, ‘but it’s a talking dog!’ Up’ssupervising animator, Scott Clark, explains that ‘humans do understand dog behaviour on a subconscious level’ [2]. So when the audience is presented with recognisable dog behaviours to a human voice, ‘people get a kick out of recognising their own pets’. The choice of having dogs is worth noting. Surely this animal in an exotic world should have an owner which is why Carl ‘wonders who he belongs to’ [3]. Dogs are domesticated pets, an indicator of home or the familiar which family audiences can easily relate to. Dogs are associated with being human companions which is certainly the case with Dug as he continually calls Carl his ‘master’. A cross between a Labrador and a Golden Retriever, Dug is friendly, loyal but not the brightest creature. Designer on Up, Albert Lozano, describes that Dug has to be an animal you can ‘fall in love with’ [4]. He is a ‘plush, fat dog that you just instantly want to hug’. Dug is ‘meant to be a quick read’ as an audience needs to see why Russell loves and wants to keep him. However, Dug’s loveable representation is very different from the rest of the Alpha Pack.

Alpha, Beta, Gamma are not so loveable. Even their names display how different they are to Dug – powerful and highly ranked dogs that act as Muntz’s henchmen. Lozano states that they are ‘strong, muscular, fast and athletic dogs’ [5] and this can easily be seen by their appearance. Alpha, the leader of the pack, is a Doberman with dark fur, sharp teeth and high angled ears. Daniel Lopez Munoz, another designer on Up, states that Alpha’s movement ‘imitates that of a rocket going through the jungle’ [6]. It is vitally important that the audience sees Alpha as a physical threat as his specialised collar is defunct. His voice has malfunctioned leaving him with a comical squeaky voice that does not match his, as director Pete Docter suggests, ‘Clint Eastwood’ demeanour [7]. Giving Alpha this human attribute emphasises the dogs’ anthropomorphic moments in the film: playing poker, serving dinner and fighting in aeroplanes.  Beta, a Rottweiler, and Gamma, a Bulldog, are Alpha’s underlings. The Alpha Pack is based on ‘angles and bullet shapes’ [8] displaying the danger that they impose on Dug, Kevin, Carl and Russell. The colours of the dogs are also significant. Like Alpha, Beta and Gamma, the rest of the pack are similarly imposing with the colour palette of grey, black and brown. This contrasts greatly against Dug whose colour scheme pays homage to Walt Disney’s most famous dog, Pluto. Although appearing to be intelligent trackers, Muntz’s dogs are flawed by their animalistic instincts. Their thoughts and obsessions betray them: hearing the word ‘treat’ when Muntz welcomes Carl and Russell, chasing a ball, munching the animal bones Muntz has captured and continually being distracted by the supposed squirrel. The pack’s purpose though is to not only keep Muntz company, but to capture the bird native to Paradise Falls.

Kevin is a cross between a tall ostrich and a brightly coloured parrot. The fictional bird has to represent something unique and valuable as Muntz has been after this bird for decades. Docter explains that Kevin is Muntz’s ‘ticket to fame’ [9]. He becomes so obsessed with bringing the bird back to civilisation that he has ‘lost contact with everyone in society’ [10]. He only interacts with his dogs and has cut off all ties with civilisation so he cannot trust anyone. Yet the bird is the central ‘MacGuffin’ in the film. A ‘MacGuffin’, described by Alfred Hitchcock, is a plot element that has ‘vital importance’ for a character but in the grand scheme of the narrative has ‘no importance’ [11]. Muntz actively searches for the bird whereas Russell and Carl accidently stumble upon it. However, one idea is particularly interesting into Kevin’s representation. Film blogger Hunter Stephenson believes that Kevin is a subtle nod to the LGBT community. An obvious indication can be identified by Kevin’s multi-coloured feathers, referring to the recognised LGBT rainbow symbol. However, it is also the fact that Russell names the bird Kevin yet we later discover that Kevin is in fact a girl. Although Russell knows that Kevin is female, he and Carl continually call the bird Kevin. Stephenson states that one of the prominent themes in Up is that ‘nothing is what it first seems to be’ and Kevin, as a ‘Pricilla, Queen of the Desert looking creature…deliberately stands out against diverse settings’ [12]. I am not so sure Pixar has intended this reading, as it is seems far fetched for a family film, but it is a way to educate a younger generation on what can appear to be a male can also be a female in a subtle non-invasive manner.

The animals in Up therefore serve to create different meanings for each character. For Muntz, the dogs are his canine comfort on his journey to Paradise Falls but later become his protection, servants and weapon against capturing the exotic bird. For Carl and Russell, only Dug presents himself as a loyal companion. The rest of the Alpha Pack is a threat. With Kevin, Muntz sees the bird as the prize that will boost his career and ego. For Russell she represents the absent mother figure and he takes the responsibility to reconnect Kevin with her family. Kevin also harks back to Carl and Ellie’s days at the zoo, particularly when Ellie is holding the parrot from the South America enclosure. Moreover though, the animals display the ‘Spirit of Adventure’ Carl and Ellie shared as children. That is what the film is trying to recreate for its audience. Discovering the animals along with Carl and Russell emulates the adventure Ellie had always dreamed about. However, at the end of the film we learn it is not the adventure itself that is valuable. It is the emotional journey Carl takes in realising he did have an adventure all along with Ellie throughout their lives together.

With regards to other animation films, it is an interesting choice for Up not to have animals that physically talk. In Disney’s Lady and the Tramp and The Lion King, animals lip sync to an actor’s voice and appear to actually be talking. However, these are animal focused films whereby the protagonists are animals and primarily interact with other species. As Kyle Munkittrick points out non-human characters in Disney films are ‘either anthropomorphous animals that take the place of humans or are animals with a preternatural awareness of and ability to interact with feral human beings’ [13].  Yet all Pixar films, except Cars, take place in the human world. With central human characters like Carl and Russell, and a supposedly real world scenario, animals do not have the ability to speak but have a conscious understanding. This is also seen briefly in Toy Story 2 and 3 with interaction between Woody and the dog Buster. Although Up’s dogs have anthropomorphic moments they do not take the place of humans. They are there to emphasise Muntz’s isolation and are consciously aware of themselves, creating much of the comedy found in Up.

Further Reading

Tim Hauser, The Art of Up, (San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 2009)

Making of Up Featurettes on Pixar’s Official Website: https://www.pixar.com/features_films/UP#Film-Trailers/Making Of

Hunter Stephenson, ‘Essay: Is Kevin the Tropical Bird in Pixar’s Up a Nod to the LGBT Movement?’ https://www.slashfilm.com/is-kevin-the-tropical-bird-in-pixars-up-a-nod-to-the-lbgt-movement/

Kyle Munkittrick, ‘The Hidden Message in Pixar’s Films’: https://blogs.discovermagazine.com/sciencenotfiction/2011/05/14/the-hidden-message-in-pixars-films/#.UWcvlqKKLTp

Ian Freer, Empire Magazine 2009 Review of Up: https://www.empireonline.com/reviews/ReviewComplete.asp?FID=135479

[1] David Bennun, ‘I am bored with animated animals’, (The Guardian Online, November 2007): https://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2007/nov/30/anthropomorphiccrittersarea [Accessed 06/04/13]

[2] Tim Hauser, The Art of Up, (San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 2009) p. 13

[3] Up (dir. Peter Docter, 2009)

[4] Tim Hauser, The Art of Up, (San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 2009) p. 120

[5] Ibid, p. 138

[6] Ibid, p. 139

[7] Inside Up: The Dog Pack Featurette: https://youtu.be/QK_Nol557lc [Accessed 06/04/2013]

[8] Tim Hauser, The Art of Up, (San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 2009) p. 139

[9] Making of Kevin Featurette: https://www.pixar.com/features_films/UP#Film-Trailers/Making Of/node/3885 [Accessed 06/04/2013]

[10] Tim Hauser, The Art of Up, (San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 2009) p. 96

[11] Quote cited in Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p. 479

[12] Hunter Stephenson, ‘Essay: Is Kevin the Tropical Bird in Pixar’s Up a Nod to the LGBT Community?’, (June 2009)  https://www.slashfilm.com/is-kevin-the-tropical-bird-in-pixars-up-a-nod-to-the-lbgt-movement [Accessed 06/04/13]

[13] Kyle Munkittrick, ‘The Hidden Message in Pixar’s Films’ (May 2011) https://blogs.discovermagazine.com/sciencenotfiction/2011/05/14/the-hidden-message-in-pixars-films/#.UWarIqKKLTo [Accessed 11/04/13]